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Lord’s Day 23

3. Faith and Justification (cont.)

According to others, the relation between justification and faith is such that we are righteous before God, in part at least, because of the fruits of faith in our good works. This is the Roman Catholic position. Christ merited for us the gift of faith. And a living faith brings forth good works. Because of those good works of faith we are justified. We must come back to this question in connection with Lord’s Day 24. But even now we must call attention to that well-known passage, James 2:14-26, upon which this view of the relation between faith and justification is chiefly based. Apparently James there teaches, indeed, that a man is justified by works, the works of faith. He asks the question: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” And again in verse 17 he makes the statement: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” And in verse 21 he asks the question: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” And in verse 25 he refers to the example of Rahab the harlot, stating that she was justified by works, “when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way,” And in verse 24 he concludes from the whole passage “that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” However, if this be the teaching of James, it would be in flat contradiction with that of the apostle Paul, who always emphasizes that a man is justified by faith only without works. And that is impossible because Scripture cannot be in conflict with itself.

If, however, we look closely at the passage of James 2, it will be evident that he makes a sharp distinction between a living faith and a dead faith. He does not mean to contradict that a man is justified by faith, but he opposes the pretention of him who claims that he has the faith without manifesting a true and living faith in the works of it.

This is evident first of all from the passage 2:14-17. When James asks the question in the last part of verse 14, “Can faith save Him?”, he does not have in mind a true and living faith, but a. faith which a man says, professes, to have. It is a mere intellectual assent, a dead faith, without works. And the question is: what is the proper work of faith? And the answer must be, according to Scripture, that it is to cling to Christ as the revelation of the God of our salvation. Such faith is indeed saving. But faith which a man claims to have, but which is a mere intellectual assent, is as far as the result is concerned, just as vain as the illustration of the man who says to his destitute and empty brother: “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving him food and clothing. Just as that mere statement profits the brother nothing, so the mere intellectual faith, which is not a reliance on the God of our salvation in Christ, cannot save.

In verses 18 and 19 this truth is further elucidated. In verse 18 James, evidently, addresses the supposed speaker or objector, in the words: “Thou hast faith and I have works,” at the same time repudiating the implied separation of faith and works. He means to say: “But thou objectest that thou wilt gladly let me have my works, if thou only canst keep the faith; but I answer that thou wilt have to show me that thou posessest the true and living faith at all by thy works, otherwise it is no faith.” And the illustration of the faith which the devils have and tremble evidently refers to nothing but a factual faith in one God, which is the very opposite of the knowledge and confidence of true faith.

From all this it should be plain that James is not writing about saving faith at all, but about a mere intellectual assent to the truth, which has no saving power. The work of a living faith is the knowledge of and confidence in the God of our salvation. It is the tie which binds us to Christ, the power whereby we cling to Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, and through Him the complete reliance upon God Who justifies the ungodly. Such a living faith has its fruit in repentance; and in a hearty conversion from sin into holiness.

This is the point which is illustrated by the example of Abraham’s faith. The faith of Abraham, James teaches, was made perfect by works. But the question is: by what works? It is striking that as an example of the work of faith which Abraham performed, James refers to his offering up of Isaac. Not to any works of the law, not to any meritorious act whereby he became righteous before God, but to the sacrifice of his son Isaac, he refers as the sole illustration of the faith that was made perfect by works. By this act he revealed that, even after he had first hoped against hope, lie still clung to God Who could raise the dead, and completely fulfill His promise. And that faith was imputed to him for righteousness, exactly because it was faith in Christ or in God Who raised up Jesus from the dead.

And the same is true of the example of Rahab. Rahab, the harlot, by the God-given power of faith, clung to the promise, chose the party of the living God against the whole world, and was saved. Her faith too was perfected by works, but in her case too it was the work of faith, whereby she clung to Christ, and to God Who justifies the ungodly.

Hence, over against all that would be justified by the works of the law, Scripture emphasizes justification by faith only. But it is equally true that over against all that would boast of an empty intellectual assent, without the works that characterize the true and living faith, the Word of God maintains that faith is made perfect by works.

Nor is the relation between faith and justification to be conceived and presented as that of a benefit on God’s part and a condition on our part. This, too, is often alleged. God saves and justifies us on condition that we believe. Superficially considered, it might seem as if there were truth in this assertion. Is it not true that we must believe in order to be saved? If we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be justified; if not, we shall be damned. It appears, then, that justification is conditioned by faith.

Yet this cannot be the relation. First of all, it should be remembered that objective justification is before faith. Objectively, we are justified regardless of our faith. In eternal election all those given Christ by the Father are righteous before God forever. And this righteousness cannot be contingent upon faith, even though it is true that we cannot appropriate this gift of righteousness except by a true and living faith. Besides, long before we believed, the justification of all the elect is accomplished forever in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, secondly, although it is true that justification in the subjective sense is contingent upon faith, we must never forget that faith is not of ourselves, it is a gift of God. It is therefore not a condition which we must fulfill in order to be justified: God Himself fulfills all the conditions of salvation.

For the same reason we would repudiate the illustration of faith as the hand whereby we accept the proffered salvation. The figure is often used of a present, like a watch for instance, that is freely offered to someone. All that is necessary for that someone to become possessor of the present is to accept the gift. But, first of all, salvation is not to be compared at all to such an external gift, which we may accept or reject. And, secondly, we should never overlook the fact that no man has of himself such a hand whereby he can accept the gift, of salvation. He is by nature dead in sin and misery, so that he hates the very gift of righteousness if it should be offered him by God. He loves the darkness rather than the light.

The only proper conception of the relation between justification and faith is that it is a means, or instrument, God’s own means whereby He unites us with Christ.

There is, undoubtedly, first of all an objective relation in this faith-union with Christ. For it is said of Abraham that his faith was imputed to him for righteousness. This imputation certainly implies that objectively the sinner is declared righteous in Christ before the tribunal of God. God declares that the sinner is free from all his guilt, is perfectly righteous, is adopted as His child, and worthy of eternal life. He is as it were severed from his natural and legal relation which he sustains with the human race in Adam, and by faith legally incorporated in the body of Christ. In Adam he is guilty and worthy of death. In the corporation of Christ he is righteous and worthy of eternal life. God declares the ungodly righteous, certainly not because of any work of faith, or on any condition of faith, but because He imputes the objective legal relation which the sinner sustains to Christ as righteousness. And this relation is the relation of faith only.

This objective justification in the tribunal of God we appropriate by faith.

By faith, through the gospel, we hear the declaration of God that He announces us righteous.

By faith I know with a certain knowledge, which is spiritual, and am entirely confident that I am united with Christ, that I belong to the legal corporation of which Christ is the representative Head. By faith, therefore, I lay hold upon the righteousness which God from eternity has imputed to me in His counsel, which He has accomplished for me in the perfect satisfaction of Christ, and which was manifested in His resurrection. And so, by faith, I know that in the midst of sin I am righteous, that in the midst of death I live, and that although I know that by nature I am a child of the devil I am graciously adopted as a child of God, or, as the Catechism expresses it: “though my conscience accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing hearts

Such is the meaning of justification by faith before God!

Lord’s Day 24

Q. 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?

A. (Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also that our best works in this life are imperfect and defiled with sin.

Q. 63. What! Do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?

A. This reward is not of merit, but of grace.

Q. 64. But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?

A. By no means: for it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

1. The Repudiation of All Works.

This twenty-fourth Lord’s Day may, in a way, be considered an appendix of the preceding.

It is apologetic in character. He defends the truth that we are justified by faith only, on the ground of the satisfaction and perfect righteousness of Christ, over against every attempt to adulterate and falsify this pure doctrine by the introduction of an admixture of man’s good works. And it does this, first of all, by emphatically denying that our good works can have any part in our justification; secondly, by emphasizing that the reward of our good works is of pure grace; finally, by repudiating the accusation that this doctrine does or possibly can make men careless and profane.

This apologetic appendix of the pure truth of justification by faith only is necessary and very important.

First of all, because the erroneous conception and conviction that in order to be saved our good works must have something to say and be meritorious before God is deeply rooted and ingrained in the sinful mind and heart. The pharisaistically-conceived relation between God and man, according to which the latter is a wage-earner that works for the reward, is very common and is deeply rooted in the heart of every sinner. And it is necessary that this conception be repudiated, and that over against it the truth of imputed righteousness and justification by faith only be strongly emphasized.

Secondly, it is necessary to defend this truth of justification by faith over against all admixture of the doctrine of good works, because we can never stand in the true liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, on the truth that we are not under the law but under grace, and clearly understand that our relation to God is not that of slaves but of free sons, unless we understand that Christ has fulfilled all, and that our righteousness is given to us by God of free grace.

And finally, it is important to defend this truth of justification by faith only, because no sinner can have one moment’s peace except in the faith that he is forever righteous before God because of a free gift through Jesus Christ without any works whatsoever. To state the truth concerning this righteousness boldly we may indeed assert that our own works do not add to our righteousness before God whatever. They cannot make our righteousness more perfect than it is, nor can our sins ever detract from the perfection of this righteousness.

This is the glory of the faith of the reformation.

And it is this truth which the Roman Catholics have corrupted and even severely condemned.

This is evident from The Canons and Dogmatic Decrees of the Council of Trent, 1563.

We read there in Caput VII:

“This disposition, or preparation, is followed by justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of grace, and the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, so that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”

It is evident that in this Roman Catholic description of the “justification of the impious” the condition and the state of the sinner are intentionally confused. Justification is not merely remission of sins, and imputed righteousness on the basis of the satisfaction of Christ only, but it also consists in sanctification and renewal of the inward man. That this is indeed the Roman Catholic doctrine concerning justification by faith is evident further from Caput VIII, which informs us “In what manner it is to be understood, that the impious is justified by faith, and gratuitously”. We quote:

“And whereas the apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of his sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification—whether faith or works—merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same apostle says, grace is no more grace.”

Here, too, it is very evident that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is not a purely forensic conception, according to which we are declared righteous before God and He reckons faith as righteousness, but it is rather an ethical conception, that of an infused righteousness. That is why faith can be called the beginning of human salvation, and the root of all justification; and that is why, too, faith and works both can be said to precede justification. In other words, according to the Roman Catholic doctrine we are certainly justified by the works of faith.